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Best new radio show of 2021: ‘The Don Was Motor City Playlist’

Photo courtesy of Jim Bloch. Don Was at the 2017 Concert of Colors.

By Jim Bloch

Jimi Hendrix played in Little Richard’s band in 1964 after Richard, famous for his 1957 tune “Tutti Frutti,” returned to rock-and-roll after a number of years on the gospel circuit. Hendrix’s guitar playing so electrified the band’s live shows — and diverted attention away from the star — that Little Richard began turning off the spotlight on the guitarist.

Where can you hear stories like this?

Try the best new live radio show of 2021: “The Don Was Motor City Playlist” on WDET 101.9 FM. The Playlist airs every Friday night, 10 p.m.-midnight, produced and side-kicked by long-time WDET disc jockey Ann Delisi.

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The show is hosted Don Was, bassist and co-founder of the funk-rock band Was (Not Was), which made a number of splashes in the music pool of the 1980s. The band debuted in 1981 with its self-titled album for Island Records, which featured club fave “Out Come the Freaks.” Its biggest hit came with “Walk the Dinosaur” in 1988 from the album “What Up, Dog?” for Fontana Records.

He was born in Detroit and grew up in Oak Park, graduating from Oak Park High, which completely grounded him in the Motor City music scene. Since 2008, he has played bass and co-produced the Detroit All-Star Review, a celebration of Motor City music legends, as part of the Concert of Colors held downtown each July.

Was has the ideal voice for late-night radio, a mix of Grade B maple syrup and crumbling asphalt.

Photo courtesy of Jim Bloch
Ann Delisi flanked by Detroit soul vocalist Melvin Davis and Motown guitar great Dennis Coffey at the 2017 Concert of Colors.

Each week he bestows on Delisi a vivid localized descriptor that obviously pleases her. On Dec. 10, he dubbed her the Venus of Vernor Highway. On Dec. 17, she was the Goddess of the Gullen Mall, around which much Wayne State University is arrayed.

“It’s pretty gratifying for me,” Delisi said on the show. “Nobody has been quite that nice to me — every week.”

The two have a compelling rapport, full of respect, vivaciousness and laughter. Listening to them warms your ears and heart.

Was develops an off-beat title for each show. On Dec. 17, it was “The Renaissance Center Taxi Stand Playlist.” On Dec. 10, the theme was “The Nat Morris Playlist,” honoring the former WGPR deejay and host of the Channel 62 dance show “The Scene” which ran 1975-1987. Was has been buddies with Morris for 45 years, since he played soul music live from the Quality Discount Furniture Store on Gratiot in the after-school slot.

Was has to be the hippest 69-year old alive. He knows nearly everyone in the music business, either from playing with them or producing them. He is currently the bassist in the Wolf Brothers, featuring Bob Weir, rhythm guitarist and cofounder of the Grateful Dead, drummer Jay Lane and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti. The band’s new record appears on vinyl Feb. 18 on Jack White’s Third Man Records.

Was has won six Grammys, including two for his production of Best Albums, one with the Rolling Stones and the other Bonnie Raitt. He has produced such Hall of Fame musicians as Roy Orbison, Greg Allman, Neil Young, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan.

He has composed music or served as music director for a number of movies, music videos and TV shows. He directed the sensational 1995 documentary about the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson called “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.”

Oh, yeah. Was also has a day job. He is the president of the legendary jazz label Blue Note Records, which is based in Los Angeles.

All of this means the music he plays is diverse. Afro-beat. Soul. Funk. Country. Folk. Jazz. And plain old rock-and-roll. Nearly every song comes with a nugget of related trivia or a full-blown story. After playing “Stop in the Name of Love” by The Supremes, Was noted that the song was edged out of a Grammy in 1965 by The Statler Brother’s “Flowers on the Wall.” If you don’t know the latter, you get Was’s ironic point.

On Dec. 17, he played the reggae tune “Storm” by Gregory Isaacs featuring the superlative bassist Robbie Shakespeare, who died Dec. 8 at 68. He played a song by Monkee tunesmith Mike Nesmith, who died Dec. 10 at 78.

So why would the president of Blue Note Records and the producer of the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan fly into Detroit every week to do a live two-hour radio show?

“We were having dinner in Detroit when he was in town for the Concert of Colors global music festival,” said Delisi in a statement..”(Don) talked about listening to WDET and the late-night show ‘Jazz Today’ hosted by Bud Spangler.”

Spangler’s show debuted around 1970.

“He said that his dream was to do a show like that and play songs that were his personal favorites — from any genre and from any era,” said Delisi. “Months later, I suggested to my WDET colleagues that Don should host a show on WDET and everyone loved the idea.”

The show launched April 16.

A fluke of the calendar means Was and Delisi will be doing a live show on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve — maybe a countdown show.

“I always wanted to do one of those,” said Was.

Jim Bloch is a freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. Contact him at bloch.jim@gmail.com. 

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